Getting the Most Out of a Move : Companies Help Employees Cope With Relocation Stress

<i> Kim lives in Los Angeles</i>

When Rick and Sheila Christensen moved to Los Angeles last year with their children Jennifer, 7, and Stephen, 5, they spent three difficult months in a furnished apartment because the house they had bought wasn’t finished on time.

“The worst of it,” Rick Christensen said, “was that there was no one we could turn to,” adding that everyone treated his family like total strangers.

“There were a lot of bad days in that period when I thought I didn’t want to be here. I just wanted to pack and go home to Portland (Ore.),” Sheila Christensen said.

Problems of Disorientation


Most of the estimated 45 million Americans who moved last year made the transition with few difficulties, but many reported lingering feelings of anxiety, depression, physical illness and relationship problems associated with the disorienting effects of a major move, according to reports from the Employee Relocation Council, an association formed by large corporations to help make relocation as painless as possible.

“Any kind of major life change like this (relocation) tears to pieces all of the individual’s important routines and support groups,” said San Francisco psychologist Patricia Cooney Nida. “People tend to underestimate the real impact of a move on their lives.”

No matter whether the move is local or cross-country, Nida said, the effects on certain people can be agonizing.

Women, men in mid-life and adolescent and teen-age children seem most sensitive to the disruptive effects of relocating, she observed.


Lilli R. Friedland, a Century City clinical psychologist, said that “all people are equally susceptible to stresses. It’s the way they cope with them that may be slightly different.”

The Reasons Matter

Friedland noted that the circumstances behind a move can make a difference in an individual’s reaction to it. If the move is prompted by a new and better job, there is likely to be less difficulty in the transition.

But, the psychologist added, if the relocation offers little or no prospect of employment, particularly for the male breadwinner, the trauma can acutely affect the entire family.

“We’re talking about everything that makes up the roots of a family. When you change that rootedness, you’re talking about really major trauma,” Friedland said, adding that when both spouses have careers and one--usually the wife--is forced to abandon a job to follow the other, problems become even more acute.

Those problems commonly include feelings of doubt about the future, loss of faith in the move, reduced job performance and severe family friction. They can lead people to repress unresolved feelings and seek self-destructive outlets, psychologists and counselors said.

“Typically, it is the wife who determines whether a transfer will really work in the end,” said Les Kelly, an employee resource manager with Nissan Motor Corp.-USA in Torrance.

Friedland concurred. “Relocation seems to have a more drastic effect on women because they are the ones who tend to knit the fabric of the family together,” she said.


A Feeling of Loss

Women and children, she added, often find themselves following a husband or father and giving up more than they expect to receive.

Teen-agers and younger children, who studies show resent leaving familiar surroundings, friends and set schedules, become hostile, isolate themselves and do badly in school after relocation. Drug abuse and suicidal tendencies run high under these circumstances, Nida said.

Nida, who is author of the books “Families on the Move,” and “The Teen-ager’s Survival Guide to Moving,” said that after relocation men often fare no better than women and children.

“There are a lot of subtle pressures placed on him. Somebody--the employer--has invested $40,000 in his transfer. He’s got to perform right,” she noted.

The chances of “performing right” after relocation can be enhanced by proper preparation.

“If people can be taught to predict what they will feel and how to solve the tasks and emotional issues facing them, problems can be prevented and relocation will be successful,” noted Georgetown, Conn., psychologist Stephen V. Eliot.

Continuity Is Needed


Maintaining old contacts as new support groups are formed is also vital in a transition. “The old folklore of ‘never look back’ and ‘you can’t go home again’ is wrong,” psychologist Nida said. “Keep a sense of continuity in your life by keeping old friends.”

Nida also recommended talking extensively with one’s spouse and children, noting that maintaining communication with family members is an important factor in promoting togetherness.

Remain organized, patient and positive-thinking in daily affairs from the very beginning of the move, said psychologist Eliot.

Flexibility Helps

“The more flexible a person is in a life style, the easier that move will tend to be,” said therapist Douglas Pryor of Santa Ana, who was interviewed while moving for the second time in four years. “Recognize the positive qualities of the new area and approach the change as a chance to discover and explore new things.”

The Employee Relocation Council reports that a growing number of employees today are refusing transfers unless there are important benefits to be gained by the moves. But the council adds that the majority of employees would not reject a move at some future date.

For companies, transfers are a sizable investment; the Employee Relocation Council confirmed Nida’s estimate of about $40,000 to move one family. To prevent unsuccessful relocations, employers have begun examining the emotional problems underlying potentially troublesome moves.

Large corporations try to ease the trauma of relocating in a variety of ways. Most offer financial packages and home finding services that lessen the difficulty of selling one house and buying another.

Last year, when banker Dan Armel moved from New York to Los Angeles to become a partner in the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand, the firm hired Personalized Relocation Management to help with the move. Alan Dias, president of the Los Angeles-based relocation agency, said his people helped Armel and his wife find a suitable home in a community close to work, and eased them into the neighborhood with information about such services as transportation, banking, churches, baby sitters, housekeepers, doctors and hospitals.

Relocation agencies vary in the services they offer. Most agencies only assist transferees with home buying and provide some basic information about available services. Some, however, will arrange to have furniture moved from one city to another, help set up bank accounts, even find a new milkman for the relocated family.

“It used to be that relocation simply meant packing up the goods and taking off,” said Marilyn Poliakoff Skinner, a relocation coordinator for Southern Bell Telephone in Atlanta. “Companies have only just begun to look at the people side of it.”